Bologna studies space iodine to recharge satellites in orbit

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Will iodine be the fuel of the future to move and recharge small satellites, thus reducing space debris and allowing missions that are impossible today? This is the question that the University of Bologna will answer by 2027, thanks to the project of which it is the leader: Boost, an acronym for Building blocks for iodine thrusters, a research program financed with over 2 million euro from Brussels, as part of the Horizon Europe program which will be developed over the next four years in collaboration with six partners: the Universities of Padua and Stuttgart, with the French National Scientific Research Center (through Icare, the Orleans institute specialized in combustion , aerothermal, reactivity and environment), with two Italian companies T4i (spin-off of the University of Padua) and Tyvak International and the German-Romanian company Astos Solutions.

Iodine will replace xenon and reduce space debris

Officially launched on 1 January 2024, the Boost project was presented in the kick-off meeting organized on 1 and 2 February in Forlì, the Alma Mater campus where Fabrizio Ponti, professor in the Industrial Engineering department and coordinator of the project, works . «Boost – he explains – is not just a project that aims to replace xenon, the noble gas currently used for electric space propulsion, but very rare and expensive, with iodine (a halogen widespread in nature, ed), but an initiative that will change the way we conceive and use thruster technology, because in addition to creating the first prototype of an iodine tank with refillable cartridges, we will work on the mission study for the development of a petrol station robot that will be able to recharge satellites in orbit (in-orbit refuelling), thanks to solid iodine cartridges, rechargeable and replaceable, extending their useful life”.

The spread of small and nano-sats has in fact made access to space much quicker and cheaper for public and private actors for purposes ranging from the control of land, maritime and air traffic, to the monitoring of catastrophic events, up to investigations into criminal activities. But this proliferation potentially entails, on the one hand, the insufficiency of xenon to set all the satellites in motion and, on the other, the problem of the accumulation of space debris.

The petrol station robots in orbit around the planets

UniBo is the proponent of the idea of ​​creating tanks for iodine as a propellant with refillable cartridges: by preparing the satellites for this purpose already during the construction phase, it will be possible to send robots into orbit that replace the exhausted cartridges. «We think that these “gas station” robots could also be placed in orbit around a planet such as Mars or Jupiter, to ensure that each mission on the planet can receive, once it reaches its destination, additional propellant to continue its work. This would also allow us to send lighter and more discharged probes from earth, with lower costs and risks in the initial launch, because recharging takes place in orbit. It’s not science fiction”, assures Ponti, who in the meantime with the Boost project is studying the rechargeability of satellites in low orbit, so as to reduce space debris. Other studies proposed in recent months also involve recharging geostationary satellites in orbit, capable of making lunar missions more attractive, because from the moon it would be cheaper than from the earth to recharge the satellites that rotate at 35,800 km above sea level. ‘equator.

A team effort

The Bologna team – three researchers who will double in size in the coming months – will work between now and the end of 2027 on creating tanks and cartridges for iodine thrusters; the University of Padua will develop radio frequency cathodes (to cancel the negative charges of electric propulsion). The T4i company will take care of the development of the components for the fluidics to bring the propellant to the thruster, which will have a power of 1KW (the current power on board the satellites so far powered by iodine, guaranteed by solar panels, ranges from 50 to 150 watts, much lower). German and French researchers will work on making the platforms and diagnostic systems available open source at European level to test and measure iodine thruster prototypes. German Astos, at its headquarters in Romania, will study the mission profiles possible with the new technology and Tyvak will propose the interfaces between the various components to arrive at a single standard of iodine storage systems and extend the life of all satellites in orbit .

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